“It’s an elitist enterprise,” Newt Gingrich declared in 1995, amid a fierce (and unsuccessful) Republican campaign to “zero out” funds for the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio. At Gingrich’s side stood South Dakota Senator Larry Pressler, who excoriated viewers of Washington’s PBS affiliate, WETA. One out of every eight contributors to WETA, declared Pressler, “is a millionaire, one out of seven has a wine cellar and one out of three spent time in Europe in the last three years.” A decade later public broadcasting is again under pressure, but this time the threat comes not primarily from Congress–which recently voted down a proposal to gut the annual budget of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, an entity that provides essential funding for public radio and TV stations–but from an activist CPB board brimming over with conservatives.
Kenneth Tomlinson, a former editor in chief of Reader’s Digest and a friend of Karl Rove, is the current chairman of the CPB board and the man chiefly responsible for the latest crusade against public broadcasting. In recent months Tomlinson has installed Patricia Harrison, a former co-chair of the Republican National Committee, as president of the CPB; permitted a White House staffer to draft guidelines for two new CPB ombudsmen (Ken Bode and William Schulz, formerly of Reader’s Digest); and secretly hired an obscure, Indiana-based conservative consultant, Frederick Mann, to systematically analyze the content of several PBS and NPR programs: NOW With Bill Moyers, The Diane Rehm Show, Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered and The Tavis Smiley Show. Mann’s sprawling content analysis, riddled with typos and misspellings, uses a very broad brush to categorize guests as “liberal,” “conservative” or “neutral.” The Mann study, according to Senator Byron Dorgan, is “an amateur attempt to prove there was a liberal bias” on the public airwaves.
And yet Tomlinson (and his allies in the White House) have demonstrated greater political acuity than Gingrich and Pressler. Gone is the bombast about liberal elites and wine cellars; Tomlinson has instead positioned himself as an unlikely champion of “objectivity and balance” on public radio and TV. “NOW With Bill Moyers,” Tomlinson wrote in a December 2003 letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell, “does not contain anything approaching the balance the law requires for public broadcasting.” He was alluding to the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, a contested portion of which, Section 396, calls for “strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs.” But the text of the law is ambiguous, because three paragraphs later the CPB–which was created as a firewall between Congress and the stations–is instructed to “assure the maximum freedom” of public broadcasters by adopting a laissez-faire attitude toward editorial content. Embracing one aspect of Section 396 and sidestepping another, Tomlinson has aggressively imposed the “objectivity and balance” clause on public broadcasters.
PBS executives, for their part, have worked to accommodate the needs of a more conservative CPB. “By spring 2003,” according to the trade newspaper Current, “PBS was quietly letting major producers know that it wanted proposals for programs that would add conservative balance to the schedule.” In November 2003 PBS announced the launch of a new series hosted by Tucker Carlson. A year later the Journal Editorial Report, hosted by Paul Gigot, hit the public airwaves, backed by Tomlinson and funded by CPB. (Carlson’s show also received CPB funding.) But the new conservative programs weren’t sufficient for Tomlinson, and his CPB continues to squeeze PBS. Earlier this year, according to the New York Times, a CPB contract granting $26 million to PBS was held up after the CPB insisted PBS enforce the “objectivity and balance” clause in the 1967 charter–a request, according to PBS lawyers, that constituted a serious threat to PBS’s editorial independence. The money was eventually released, but CPB’s initial posture was disturbing to the PBS leadership.